People are caring and generous when disaster strikes. After Hurricane Sandy, relief organizations received hundreds of millions of dollars in donations intended to help storm victims survive and recover.

People give more than money: clothing, bottled water, food, and blankets come in to disaster areas from well-​meaning donors trying to make a difference. Unfortunately, not all of it actually helps.

CBS Sunday Morning recently ran a story talking about what disaster workers call “the second disaster”: the relentless crush of stuff that flows in from these givers. Juanita Rilling is the director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C. She says it’s not just that there’s too much stuff. “Generally after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and in fact may actually be harmful. And they have no idea that they’re doing it.”

The story gave an example of a hurricane relief effort in Honduras where donations included high-​heeled shoes and winter coats. Rilling makes the point that often when people give it’s more about them than the recipients. They give personal items so they can feel like they’ve at least done something. But there is little thought about what’s actually needed by the recipient, and people rarely try to find out.

Professional development often feels like this. Every professional I know wants to grow and learn and get better at their craft. Unfortunately, PD is usually sent to us from a distant administration building. The people in that building, with the best of intentions, provide training that has no meaning to the teachers or benefit to students. But at least they’ve done something. Right?

What can a teacher do, though, besides gripe about the disconnect between what Administration seems to think is needed and what is actually happening on the ground? Here are two steps you can take to improve the situation (and some bonus advice you can share with your administrator).

1. Plan ahead

Just as it’s too late during a disaster to think about what might be needed, it’s too late during a terrible PD session to think about what you could or should be doing instead. Think ahead to what you need to learn in order to be more effective as a professional, and start developing a list of goals and needs. This should be both personal and collective. Create your own individual list, and also work with your colleagues to craft goals and needs for students and teachers in your building and your district.

2. Communicate with your administration

Well in advance, talk to the administrators responsible for planning and organizing the professional learning you want and need. Be sure to share your goals, but also demonstrate why your goals and needs align with the direction and mission of the organization. Remember that you aren’t a solo practitioner–if you work for a school or district, you have a responsibility to to the community of learners as well as yourself. Show your administration how meeting your needs also serves the whole district, and you’ll be more likely to get a yes.

3. Be ready to show results

Administrators need evidence of success. It isn’t that they are inherently distrustful or that they need to micromanage. Administrators are charged with managing precious, valuable, and often very limited resources. They need to know that those resources are going towards something that will make a real difference for individuals and the organization. So think ahead about what you’ll be able to show as a meaningful outcome. Over time, repeatedly bringing back results will build confidence and you will get more opportunities to own your own professional learning.

And a note for administrators…

The CBS story makes two points about what actually does work in a disaster to relieve needs: networks and money.

Juanita Rilling says, “For me, the network is key. Who has the knowledge? Where are spaces that goods can live if there’s a disaster? Who’s really well-​connected on their blocks?” The parallel for professional learning is to allow and encourage your teachers to get and stay connected. If they have opportunities to work as an internal team and also to collaborate with others outside the building and district, the network will be better able to assess needs and manage resources than you can.

And if you’re going to give something in a disaster, Rilling says, give money. “Money sometimes doesn’t feel personal enough for people. The reality is, it’s one of the most compassionate things that people can do.” The reason money is best is that it’s liquid. It can go towards whatever the immediate need is at the moment. In PD, the most precious resource is time. Give it to your teachers in abundance, and let them decide what to do with it.

If there needs to be accountability, don’t micromanage how it gets used. Instead work with teachers to agree on mutually beneficial outcomes and support them in achieving them.

When we are proactive and plan ahead for meaningful and effective professional development, everyone wins. This is the perfect time of year to be thinking ahead to what will make summer and fall learning experiences better. What other strategies are working for you to avoid disastrous PD? What are you doing as a teacher or administrator to help everyone learn and grow and achieve meaningful goals? Share your thoughts in the comments.